Princeton mayor declares a state of emergency

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Mayor Liz Lempert declared a state of emergency in Princeton because of the potential spread of the coronavirus, resulting in the cancellation of municipal meetings and other events.

Mayor Lempert made the announcement at a press conference on March 13. She was accompanied by Princeton Health Officer Jeffrey Grosser, Princeton Board of Health Chairman Dr. George DiFernando, Police Chief Nicholas Sutter and Superintendent of Schools Steve Cochrane.

“We are all in this together,” Mayor Lempert said. “These are difficult times,” she said, and there will likely be “severe disruptions.”

In declaring a state of emergency, Mayor Lempert said all public meetings of the town’s boards, committees and commissions – including the Planning Board and the Zoning Board of Adjustment – will be canceled through April 5.

The Princeton Council meetings also will be canceled through April 5, except for special or emergency meetings to approve the payments of bills and claims, she said.

All municipally-sponsored events, as well as private events held on municipal property, will be canceled through April 30, including events for which municipal permits have already been issued.

Mayor Lempert encouraged residents to use online payment options, the U.S. mail or drop box service at the municipal building at 400 Witherspoon St. to pay property taxes, licenses, permits and to conduct other local government business.

In addition to canceling municipal meetings, other groups are suspending their activities, Mayor Lempert said. The list includes Communiversity, which has been rescheduled for October. The Princeton Jazz Festival has been canceled.

The Princeton Public Library building is closed through at least March 30, although library card users will have access to digital resources that include e-books, audiobooks, movies, music, tutorials and research through the library’s website.

McCarter Theater is closed through March 31, and the Garden Theater is closed through March 26. The Princeton YWCA is closed through March 27, Mayor Lempert said.

Dr. DiFerdinando said that with the announcement that a Princeton resident has tested presumptively positive for COVID-19, the town is moving from a planning phase to a containment phase.

The goal of the containment phase is to contain exposure and more infections, Dr. DiFerdinando said. Residents who may be at increased risk – those who are at least 60 years old, or with underlying medical conditions such as heart disease or lung disease – should prepare for longer periods of isolation or social distancing.

Social distancing means staying four to six feet away from other people, and substituting fist bumps or elbow bumps for handshakes, and avoiding hugging or other close contact.

Dr. DiFerdinando said that community groups, nonprofit organizations, businesses and churches need to take measures to limit contact, especially for employees and the citizens that they serve.

Princeton is not New Rochelle, N.Y., where there are many cases of COVID-19 and the town has been practically locked down, but “we do need to start planning,” he said. People need to start planning to stay indoors for an extended period of time.

Superintendent of Schools Steve Cochrane said that “we are in an unprecedented time in our community, our country and our planet. We do not have all the answers, but we do have each other.”

To do its part to slow down the spread of COVOID-19, the school district has moved to remote learning, Cochrane said. It will be in place between March 16 and March 27. The district will then evaluate the situation, he said, emphasizing that students are still learning. This is not like a snow day, he said.

To feed the 500 students who receive free or reduced price lunch, the school district and its food service are preparing two weeks’ worth of breakfast and lunch to distribute to the children, Cochrane said.

The food is being packed in boxes, which will be delivered to families at various locations throughout the town, he said. The district’s 15 school buses will be used to transport the boxes of food, which will be distributed during the week of March 16.

While the emphasis is on physical well-being, “we need to be thinking and talking about emotional health, and support each other” in the wake of the anxiety that COVID-19 has caused, Cochrane said. Children take their cues from their parents, he said.

Chief Sutter said this is “scary time,” but the first responders – police, emergency medical technicians and firefighters – are ready to answer calls for help.

“I can assure you, we will be there in an emergency. I am confident that there will not be a degradation in our services,” Sutter said.

Sutter echoed Mayor Lempert’s suggestion regarding how to conduct municipal business without face-to-face contact. Administrative and non-essential police matters can be handled electronically or by a phone call to minimize one-on-one and group contact, he said.